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We must level-up to tackle the "dream deficit" in women's sport

Members of the Gold Winning Team GB Women's Hockey Team in London 2012

3 min read

As most of us emerged bleary eyed from 18 months of perpetual lockdowns, we saw astonishing success at the Tokyo Olympics. While many of us have struggled to keep up our exercise regime, British athletes were working hard (from home!) to achieve 65 medals and more success looks likely in the Paralympics.

For me, it has been the women who have shone through this summer. At the Olympics, Team GB comprised of more females than male athletes for the very first time, and we saw Sky Brown, Laura Kenny, Alice Dearing, and countless others, demonstrate the resilience, strength and determination that makes me proud to be British.

The prominence of these stars could well help tackle the “dream deficit” that still exists in female sport. According to Women in Sport’s research only 30% of girls dream of reaching the top of sport, compared with 60% of boys. I can’t be alone in enjoying the adorable videos of children imitating Olympic athletes from gymnasts to weightlifters, and if the visibility of sportswomen increases, girls will see what others have achieved and dream bigger than they ever have before.

Building on the legacy of John Major’s National Lottery, the Government’s commitment to increase funding of Team GB’s Olympians and Paralympians by £23.4m annually, to £77.4m a year, means that we every chance to continue the success we have seen this year, at the Paris Games in 2024.

However, whilst these incredible performances have been a welcome morale boost, we cannot forget that they have come during a pandemic which has disproportionately impacted women’s sport.

At elite level, in many cases it took far longer for women’s sport to return than men’s. Last year, the women’s premier 15s rugby was cancelled because of the pandemic, and it resumed months after the men’s game. Even in terms of emergency Covid-19 funding, the distribution was calculated on lost revenue – a metric which overwhelmingly benefited men’s sport over women – for example, netball, the most popular female sport, received £4m, while the Rugby Football Union received £135m.

The pandemic’s impact wasn’t restricted to just elite sport. Even prior to the pandemic, women and girl’s activity levels lagged behind men’s, and Women in Sport found that during the first lockdown 42% of women, compared with 35% of men, reported a drop in activity levels.

Some 25% of women and 45% of girls reported that they were worried that getting back into the habit of exercise would be hard, and while men’s physical activity levels have now largely recovered women’s activity levels continue to stay below pre-pandemic levels.

The pandemic has, however, prompted physical activity to take on a heightened importance for us all with the government framing it as “essential”. Women in Sport’s lockdown research found that 82% of girls said they will definitely/probably put more effort into being fit and active, 46% of women said doing exercise had become more of a priority in their lives and 61% of women said they would put more effort into being fit and active once the lockdown was over. With the momentum of a summer of sporting inspiration and a pandemic induced reset to attitudes, we have a real opportunity to get women and girls more active and engaged with sport.

We need to seize this opportunity with before it passes. As the Department for Culture, Media and Sport embark on their refresh of the Sporting Future strategy and the comprehensive spending review looms large, let’s start a conversation.

Let’s talk about how we can improve women and girl’s physical activity levels, with all the economic, health and social benefits that come with it.

Let’s talk about who is benefitting from the public money that we spend on sport, and whether that is men more than women.

And let’s talk about how we can continue to promote and support elite sportswomen, not just during the Olympics.

Let’s level up women’s sport.


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